Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11.35-37)
People of Substance
A lot has changed in the three years or so since Jesus found Peter and Andrew on the seashore and began assembling a core group of followers. For one thing, the need to recruit disciples has long passed. Jesus is an established Rabbi known for His provocative preaching and miracles. There’s always a show when He comes to town. People drop everything and flock to Him. Although it sounds crass, the comparison seems accurate: Jesus is a celebrity activist akin to Bono or Oprah—Someone Who wields His fame to change lives. That broadens His appeal significantly. By the second year, many people of substance actively court Jesus. They invite Him to banquets, prevail on Him to heal their sick, and ask to join His entourage. Since wealth and status don’t impress Him, He rebuffs those whose self-interest is obvious. Yet we’re given more than a few instances when Jesus befriends people who don’t fit the downtrodden mold. Besides, assuming Jesus confines His interest to the outcast and impoverished contradicts His message of radical inclusion in John 6.37: “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”
It should be noted, however, the better advantaged of Jesus’s followers are exceptions to their class. Unlike Bono, Oprah, and their ilk, Jesus never obtains the kind of superstar glamour that swings wide the gates to upper crust society. That’s why when we see Him dining in finer homes, clusters of unhappy neighbors gather in protest. It’s why Nicodemus, the highly regarded Pharisee, sneaks off in the night to visit Jesus. It’s also why the disciples balk when He decides to return to Bethany—the Jerusalem suburb where his dear friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus live—after He learns Lazarus is gravely ill. The last time they visited that part of the country, its residents tried to stone Him.
Completely Out of Character
Although John’s Gospel doesn’t explicitly say so, Jesus appears to share the disciples’ concern. Something’s amiss—that we know. News of Lazarus’s sickness reaches Him and He reacts completely out of character. He’s indecisive and hesitant. It takes two days to make up His mind to go see about His friend. In retrospect, we realize Lazarus couldn’t have got sick at a worse time. Jesus’s arrest and execution will occur in a matter of weeks. Returning to Bethany puts Him within two miles of enemies conspiring against Him. His sense of foreboding must be unbearable, as must knowing His friends need Him desperately. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha never hesitate to welcome Jesus to their home. The sisters lavish Him with care, feeding and housing Him in grand style. On one occasion, Mary empties an expensive box of perfume on Jesus to signify how dearly He’s loved. Yet Jesus waits. He waits so long by the time He tells the disciples they’re going to Bethany He’s confident Lazarus is already dead.
John, whose main purpose for writing his Gospel is deifying Jesus as “the Word made flesh” (1.14), gives the impression Jesus lingers on purpose to set the stage for a final, unprecedented miracle that foreshadows His own death and resurrection. He confides to the disciples, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” (11.14) But if we accept that, we also accept that Jesus delays coming to His friends’ aid for heartlessly selfish reasons. What could be crueler than ignoring their urgent request for help—to allow Lazarus to die, while his sisters cope with undue stress wondering why Jesus hasn’t shown up? Clearly, Mary and Martha are wounded when Jesus arrives. Mary stays at home and lets Martha go out to greet Him as He nears the town. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she says. (v21) Jesus doesn’t acknowledge her grief, however. He promises Lazarus will be revived, saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” (v25) When he asks about Mary, Martha brings her to Him and she says exactly what Martha said: “If You had been here…” Again, Jesus overlooks her sorrow, asking, “Where have you laid him?” (v33) Mary leads Him to Lazarus’s grave, with a gaggle of neighbors trailing after them. At the tomb, the weight of the entire ordeal buries Jesus. His disconcerting detachment vanishes. In the presence of beloved friends and cynical onlookers, He weeps.
A Horrible Situation
What is Jesus feeling? The episode is so fraught with conflicted emotions and behaviors attributing His grief to any of them amounts to speculation. Mourning Lazarus doesn’t prompt His tears; in mere minutes, He will restore His friend’s life. We want to agree with neighbors who say, “See how He loved him!” (v36) Then again, the cynics have a point when they counter, “Could not He Who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v37) John’s reason for Jesus’s delay is moot when we observe how it affects Mary and Martha. The purest of intentions don’t change the fact Jesus walks into a horrible situation of His own making. Is that what we’re meant to see? Should we even question why Jesus falters? Perhaps the most obvious answer is the best one.
When Jesus reaches the graveside, regret, confusion, disappointment, and every other feeling we associate with human frailty engulf Him. He weeps because His hesitance incited His friends to doubt Him. His tearstained face conveys love among the ruins. He summons all of His power not only to speak life into Lazarus’s hollow shell, but also to revive the faith and trust of those He loves. What we’re looking at is precisely what Hebrews 4.15 describes: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
We all have uncomfortable moments when hesitance, fear, and every other imaginable internal conflict threaten the ruin of relationships with people who dearly love us and we dearly love. We cause grief and confusion about where we are and why we don’t respond sooner. When we realize what we've done, we weep. But there is life in us, because there is love in us—life we can speak that brings lost friends out of their graves and heals the pain of disillusioned loved ones. Accounting for shambles we create is never pleasant. Walking into situations where we’ve let people down is nothing we want to do, even though we know we must. At Lazarus’s graveside Jesus demonstrates the power of love among the ruins.
The humanity we witness in Jesus’s tears expresses the regret, confusion, disappointment, and every other feeling we associate with frailty.